“I have a baby son from my second marriage and a daughter, Debbie (not her real name), of 7 from my first marriage. Because of complications I had to be in hospital a while after the baby was born. My husband brought Debbie to see me nearly every day and she managed well but since I have been home she is very different. When she sits on my lap she wriggles in a rather sexual way. She has been wetting the bed and waking up nearly every night with nightmares. My husband says it is natural and that she is jealous about the new baby but I am worried there could be more to it than that. Her class teacher has asked to see me because she is concerned about her sexual behaviour at school but my husband doesn’t want me to go. I have waited a few weeks before thinking more about it in case it all settled down but it hasn’t and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to discuss it with my husband.”
Mrs D. knew that her stay in hospital would disrupt her daughter. Separation from a parent, however well organised, always has an emotional impact. She and her husband also knew that as a first-born child Debbie would be affected by the birth of the new baby. The birth of a new baby is disturbing enough when the new baby is from the same mother and father, but there are additional problems when it comes from a second relationship. Debbie at 7, despite being at a relatively well-established age and stage at school could nevertheless experience the birth of a step-sibling as the final blow to secret hopes that her biological parents would remarry. Children who have made hard-earned adjustments to the new step-parent can re-experience feelings of loss over the breakup of their original families at this point.
Sometimes these feelings of loss can be sexualised. After all, when parents have a new partner their sexuality is noticeable and a new baby is proof of this. Could Debbie be showing her disturbed feelings about her mother’s sexuality and the loss of her original family by her behaviour? However, as well as other concerns, Mrs D. seems to be worrying that something sexual has happened to her daughter while she was away in hospital and she does not know what to do with that concern?
Like other parents, teachers and child workers, she is putting together different pieces of behaviour and wondering if the disturbing picture they make could be possible. Debbie is behaving in a sexualised way at school and home, wriggling on laps, wetting the bed and having nightmares .All these are ways in which children can show something is troubling them. Is her daughter’s behaviour due to the separation, new sibling, sexual abuse, a combination of these factors or something quite different?
What can Mrs D. do to find out? There are three steps she seems to have avoided. She does not want to talk further with her husband, even though he is the one who was in charge of Debbie while she was in hospital. Nor does she seem to want to talk to her daughter. She is also reluctant to hear what light the class teacher might cast on all this, especially as her husband is not keen. With a new baby to concentrate on and a new marriage perhaps she is worried her husband will not want to think more about Debbie at the moment. Or, of more concern, is she worried what she might learn from him?
One way people manage to not deal with painful issues of abuse is by avoiding them, not seeing them. If you refuse to think that such an event is possible then you cannot follow the clues you pick up. Professional workers can also go blind when faced with seeing such unpalatable facts. One teacher, for example, after a routine school medical revealed that Karen (not her real name) had been chronically abused, said “I feel awful because I made a note a year ago that I was worried about her. She masturbated in the classroom, said she had pain in her tummy and wouldn’t change for swimming or P.E. I just hoped it would all go away and when it didn’t I just accepted it as a fact of life that she was always like that”.
Debbie was clearly not always sexualised. The change in her is dramatically linked to living with her stepfather, separation from mother and birth of sibling. Stepfathers form one of the largest categories of abusers. As they are not biologically bonded to their stepchildren from the start they can be more vulnerable to different stages of childhood. For example, when a little girl is wanting to marry her daddy, especially when her mummy is away in hospital having a baby, a stepfather could be more affected. Separation stirs up powerful infantile processes in adults as well as children and the man at home, excluded from the presence of his wife who is now a new mother, can unconsciously be driven to seek comfort. Separation from the mother is a regular ingredient in child sexual abuse.
Just as a child can be scared of talking in case it breaks her family up, a father or mother can equally be scared of seeing what is happening. However, not every family is broken up by abuse. Specialist training and treatment centres like the world-famous Cassell Hospital, offer in-patient treatment and rehabilitation for the whole family. After an assessment, including a home visit by experienced Cassell nurses, a one-month period is initially offered. Then, a one year to fifteen months period of treatment is provided with an intensive rehabilitation programme. There has been no reabuse in discharged families.
“The Family as Inpatient” ed. Kennedy,R et al. Free Association
“The Ailment” by Tom Main, ed. Johns, J. Free Association